Island Health Community Wellness Grant planted seeds of growth for Songhees rooftop gardens

“I believed that if we could get it up and running, we’d soon see the value both for the Songhees community and the wellness centre.”

Chris McElroy, Songhees Nation Community Recreation Coordinator is talking about a lush and expansive rooftop garden project made possible by an $8000 Island Health Community Wellness Grant. The funds, awarded to the Songhees Nation in 2016, allowed McElroy to access his inner gardener and put his green thumbs to work.

“It was important to start growing our own produce at the wellness centre to help create a more sustainable food system, incorporate an important educational tool and support our community with access to healthy food - the project grew from there,” he says.

Songhees teamed up with Topsoil, a Victoria urban agriculture company that supports the project with expert assistance and advice as well as access to plants and innovative geotextile bags that encourage healthy root systems and excellent drainage. The model is ideal for the rooftop at the Wellness Centre.

With Topsoil’s help, McElroy and David Roger, executive chef at the Songhees Events Centre, put their heads together to develop an ambitious long-term plan to grow more than 30 herbs and vegetables year-round in the rooftop gardens including lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, carrots, and a wide variety of herbs.

“The root system will grow down and spider out as opposed to spiralling down,” explains McElroy. “And, if there is excess rain, the fabric bags allow all of the water to seep through rather than pooling at the bottom.”

After the project had been in place for a year, the gardens bloomed even more vibrantly when the Songhees health department stepped in to fund the project and ensure its sustainability. With its support, McElroy was able to expand the project further, reaching even more community members and allowing the project to gain momentum.

“Once a week we provide our members with access to the food we grow,” he explains. “We also have engaged our youth, such as with our after school program where children participate in planting and harvesting and are always keen to help out.”

Now in its third year, the project has nearly tripled in size with 300 containers arranged in long, neat rows in two rooftop locations. Esteemed executive chef David Roger and his staff can often be found harvesting an abundance of leafy greens, root vegetables and fragrant herbs for use in their catered dishes as well as on the Songhees Nation food truck, which travels to various locations in and around Victoria.

“Every chef wants to work with a product where you can walk upstairs and handpick fresh produce and then bring it downstairs and prepare it for your guests,” says Roger. “Last week, I brought 23 drummers from a drum festival upstairs and served them their first course right there where I sautéed prawns and tossed various lettuces with oil and vinegar. It was so impressive.”

In addition to the wide variety of herbs and veggies, the gardens also yield various types of traditional Indigenous plants such as stinging nettles, camas, Nootka rose, coastal strawberries, yarrow, and nodding onion.

“It’s important to ensure we grow traditional plants and use them to expand our knowledge and create an educational tool to pass on to the next generation,” says McElroy.

Chef David Roger agrees. He incorporates the use of traditional plants into many of his mouth watering dishes.

“We often use stinging nettles in our food truck items - we’ll make an aioli to serve on salmon, create a soup, or steep them in a tea,” he says.

While it’s clear that the Songhees rooftop gardens are here to stay, Chris McElroy is quick to highlight partnerships as one of the most important components for ensuring the sustainability of any project. In addition to its collaboration with Topsoil, the Songhees Nation has also partnered with Camosun College on a Culinary Arts, Tourism and Event Management program. So far, 48 First Nations students, including Songhees members, have accessed the program which incorporates use of the rooftop gardens into its curriculum.